By Howard Schneider
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 9, 2011; 10:31 PM
An emerging battle over a proposed free-trade agreement with Colombia is undercutting central pieces of President Obama's trade agenda, with key lawmakers urging swift enactment of a U.S.-Colombia deal even though the administration says the pact needs more work.
The Democratic and Republican leaders of the Senate Finance Committee said Wednesday they would withhold approval of another trade agreement - a pact with South Korea that Obama recently completed - unless it is packaged with a Colombia deal and a third, less controversial one being negotiated with Panama.
"It is clear to me that none of these [agreements] are going to pass unless they are locked so closely together that they are all going to be acted on," said Senate Finance Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.).
The dispute over the Colombia pact is also entangling other trade measures and a package of benefits for workers displaced by trade.
The Colombia agreement presents the administration with an uncomfortable choice. Some of Obama's traditional labor supporters insist that Colombia's record on violence against trade unionists remains suspect, while other allies of the president say that he is missing a chance to create U.S. jobs and advance his goal of doubling U.S. exports.
"We are losing market share hand over fist" in Colombia, Baucus said.
Baucus and Hatch are from states where the agriculture industry looks to benefit from lower Colombian tariffs on U.S. farm imports.
U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk, at a hearing held by Baucus's committee Wednesday, said the administration had stepped up talks with Colombia and Panama and is committed to concluding agreements with both, possibly by the end of the year.
But he said those discussions should be kept separate from the South Korea treaty. That pact represents potential billions in new U.S. exports and will be ready for ratification soon, Kirk said, while discussion about the other two still involve "core issues we will not compromise on" and need to continue.
A high-level Colombia delegation is scheduled to hold talks with administration officials Thursday. Colombian officials said they will push their U.S. counterparts to be clearer about what improvement in human rights and labor protection they expect.
The Panamanian legislature, meanwhile, is debating changes to its labor and tax laws that could help pave the way for action on that agreement, Kirk said.
The disagreement with Congress shows how difficult it has been for Obama to craft a trade agenda that responds to the nation's high unemployment rate but also remains consistent with the criticism of George W. Bush's trade policy that he leveled as a presidential candidate.
As with the South Korea deal, trade pacts with Colombia and Panama were negotiated by the Bush administration but never approved by Congress. The Obama administration has been hesitant to support them as written, in part, Kirk said, because of the doubts Americans harbor about whether trade agreements help U.S. workers.
Obama's protracted negotiations with South Korea produced more benefits for the United States, in particular for the U.S. auto industry. Some major unions endorsed the deal, allowing Obama to say he had broadened support for the agreement beyond the business community and other traditional free-trade advocates.
But Lori Wallach, executive director of Public Citizen's Global Trade Watch, has remained critical of free-trade agreements and said a deal with Colombia would be adding "insult to injury."
"Even though this does not pose job losses," Wallach said, "it just disgusts people in the human rights community and labor."
Colombia has had a troubled history of violence directed against union activists - with estimates of more than 2,000 murdered since the mid-1980s - and of lax government efforts to prosecute the culprits.
But the violence has been declining, and the International Labor Organization has credited Colombia's progress on implementing ILO standards, changing laws that were biased against unions, and offering more protection to union members and organizers.
Canada and the European Union have moved forward with new trade agreements with Colombia. Over the past two weeks, a bipartisan group of former U.S. trade and diplomatic officials has urged Obama to join the club, arguing that Colombia should be given credit for the progress it has made and for its willingness to fight drug trafficking and back U.S. military efforts in Afghanistan.
Kirk said recent negotiations, including a trip by U.S. officials to Colombia, left him "encouraged."
"We are pushing on an open door," he said Wednesday.
But, he said, the politics of trade in the United States remain troubling. For every state, such as Baucus's, where people might be eager to see trade agreements, there are other states where people do not trust the process. While the administration wants to boost U.S. trade, Kirk said, "we are also concerned about not losing the confidence of the American public. They question whether we will do trade deals that advance our broad American principles."
The Colombian agreement will not move forward, he said, unless a way is found to ensure it wins "the same widespread support" that has developed for the South Korea agreement.